Etymologically the word Tantra is derived from two constituents—’tan,’ to spread; ‘trai,’ to protect— and means any work that spreads or ponders upon matters like tattvas (fundamental principles) and mantras (sacred words and syllables) and through that knowledge affords protection to the aspirants.
According to the tantric texts, the tantras are innumerable. Sometimes they are stated to be 64. The number however, varies from scripture to scripture.
There are several ways of classifying the tantric texts. According to one tradition, the works in which Sadashiva speaks to the Devi are called ‘agamas’ and those in which the Devi speaks to Sadashiva or Maheshvara, are named as ‘nigamas.’ As per another grouping, they are: dakshina, vama and madhyama. A third method groups them into three: divya, kaula and vama.
A selected list of works that have been printed, confining it only to the Devi-cult, may now be given:
Sometimes, mention is also made of two types of tantras, the Yamala and the Damara.
The Yamala group gets its name because it contains the secret conversations between the deity and his consort, who form the couple (yamala = united, couple). ‘Damara’ means a goblin, an attendant of Siva. It also means ‘wonder’. Hence that class of tantras attributed to Siva and containing wondrous teachings is ‘Damaratantra’.
The Yamalatantras are:
Brahmayamala, Visnuyamala, Rudrayamala, Laksmiyamala, Umayamala, Skandayamala, Ganesayamala and Adityayamala.
The Damaratantras are:
Yogadamara, Sivadamara, Durgadamara, Sarasvatadamara, Brahmadamara and Gandharvadamara.
There are a good number of other tantras also like Manjusrimulakalpa and Guhyasamaja-tantra belonging to the Buddhist tradition.
3. Contents of the Tantras in Brief
Though there are various kinds of agamas and tantras, certain features are common to them all. They avow allegiance to the Vedas, and interpret them to the current age. However, unlike the Vedas, their doors are open to all, irrespective of caste or sex.
The subjects generally dealt with by them are classed under four padas or steps. They are: Jnanapada, Yogapada, Kriyapada and Caryapada .
The Jnanapada gives the philosophy or the metaphysics upon which the tantras are based. It is a combination of the Vedantic and the Sankhyan principles.
The Yogapada deals with the sadhanas or spiritual disciplines that help an individual aspirant to attain union with the Supreme Self, which is the final goal of life.
Since an individual is a part and parcel of the society and since his spiritual progress is closely allied with that of the society, the tantras give to the society also a way of life, a religion, so that both the individual and the society can progress in harmony with each other. Towards this end, the tantras provide the institution of community worship as in a temple or through a yaga (sacrifice) or through the sacred spots of pilgrimage. These are the topics described in the Kriyapada, the third of the series of the four padas.
Caryapada, the last, expounds the rituals and the modes of sadhanas needed in an individual’s life. A code of conduct is also given for the benefit of the tyro as well as the adept.
A good number of other topics are also dealt with in Tantric texts, which may be summarized as follows: authenticity of the agamas and the tantras based on the Vedas; creation of the world; manifestation of vaikhari-vak or the spoken word; the letters of the alphabet; various rites connected with diksha or initiation like the Vastuyaga; categories of diksha; homa (fire ritual); mantras connected with the various deities of the Hindu pantheon like Saraswati, Shri or Lakshmi, Bhuvaneshwari, Durga, Vishnu, Ganesha, Shiva and so on; yantras or geometrical configurations associated with those deities; yogic practices including the descriptions of Kundalini and the various chakras or psychic centres and so on.